Group of Miss. Democrats want full stimulus offer

Published 11:30 pm Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Some Senate Democrats say they want the chance to vote on legislation that urges Gov. Haley Barbour to accept all of Mississippi’s share of the federal stimulus.

The group held a news conference Monday at the Capitol and said the Senate resolution hasn’t been brought up for a vote in the Senate Rules Committee. It would also require House approval.

“The refusal of the Rules Committee to take up this resolution and bring it to the full Senate dilutes the rights of the people,” said Sen. Alice Harden, D-Jackson.

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Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who presides over the Senate, has said he would oppose any attempt to bypass Barbour to get the $56 million in unemployment compensation funding.

The governor has refused the money because it would require the state to change its law to expand unemployment benefits to cover part-time workers. Currently, only full-time workers laid off for no cause are eligible for benefits. Barbour said once the stimulus money runs out, the state would have to raise taxes on businesses to maintain the expanded benefits.

Barbour is one of only a few governors rejecting part of the stimulus plan signed into law last month by Democratic President Barack Obama.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate have said if the state changed the law to accept the stimulus money, it is possible to revert to the old law once the federal funding ends.

“Here we are turning down money for people in the poorest state in the nation,” said Sen. David Jordan, a Democrat from Greenwood, located in the impoverished Delta region. “It is not right. It is not just.”

The House passed a resolution last week to bypass Barbour on a 69-to-52 vote. However, that chamber’s resolution also is stalled in the Rules Committee chaired by Sen. Billy Hewes, R-Gulfport.

Hewes said on Monday that he hasn’t decided if he will bring either resolution up for a vote.

“If we do bring it up, we want it in a form that can make it out of committee,” Hewes said. “My concern is the same as many, if we start changing the way we handle our unemployment compensation and once the money runs out, we can hang our businesses with an estimated $16 million tax increase.”

Hewes isn’t under a deadline to bring the resolution up for a vote, said Sen. Robert Jackson, D-Marks. However, Jackson said he’s hopeful a vote will happen long before the session is scheduled to end on April 4.

He said earlier this year a plant closed down in Marks, leaving dozens of people without jobs.

“They have to buy groceries and take care of their kids,” Jackson said.

The $56 million in incentive funding would cover 39,600 workers, according to the Mississippi Economic Policy Center, which has been studying the federal stimulus bill and its impact on the state.

The resolutions are Senate Concurrent Resolution 615 and House Concurrent Resolution 64.